Connie Britton, Callie Khouri make 'Nashville' network TV's best new drama

Hayden Panettiere and Charles Esten in the new ABC drama "Nashville."
Hayden Panettiere and Charles Esten in the new ABC drama "Nashville." (Katherine Bomboy-Thornton / ABC)

Drama is not exactly something the networks do well any more -- especially drama that has any kind of cultural resonance.

But "Nashville," which debuts at 10 p.m. Wednesday on ABC, is the one new network drama that pretty much has it all.

In the world of fast-hit blog reviews, here are five outstanding elements that recommend it:

Callie Khouri -- The series set in the home of country music is created by Khouri, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Thelma and Louise." And the pilot has that same kind of smart, laced-wth-insight dialogue that sounds so right and righteous in its unvarvished idiom that you don't realize how poignant and profound some of it is until you think about it later.

There's also some over-the-top, melodramatic, drowning-in-soap-opera-sudsy talk, to be sure. But I'll take it to get the good stuff -- most of which is voiced by, to and about Rayna Jaymes, the fading country music singing star played by Connie Britton, of "Friday Night Lights" acclaim, who is at the center of this series.

Connie Britton -- This is one superb actress. She makes you not only believe in this character instantly, she makes you care enough about her to feel her irritation, rising anger and genuine pain as her hold on stardom starts to slip and financial worries mount. The anger is directed not just at the gods, but the young, talent-challenged, woman-child songbird who wants to dethrone Rayna and then some. The then-some part is the best.

The great thing about the character, as written by Khouri and played by Britton, is that even as you start to care about her, you have to admit she is vain, egotistical and kind of self-absorbed -- in other words a real person. And she can be phony as hell to boot. But she's better than the new model. 

Hayden Panettiere -- She plays the young, up and coming singer, Juliette Barnes, with just the right arrogance and ignorance of youth. Panettiere is not as celebrated for her work in "Heroes" as Britton was for hers in "Friday Night Lights," but she seems made for this role. And she brings it from her first minute onscreen in a dress cut low enough for cable TV. (Feeling like an actor is "made for" a role is probably the best testimony to how good the performance is. No one is, of course, "made for" any role. The good actors just make it seems that way.)

T-Bone Burnett -- This gifted musician and producer, who is married to Khouri, is in charge of the music on this show, and  it is terrific. It is country music at its best -- the high end of the genre -- the part that speaks to the place where tens of millions of Americans really live. It's brilliant, and it is going to be distributed to through Taylor Swift's music company, which means it is going to be one, big, fat revenue stream and promotional platform that you will be hearing every day on stations like WPOC. And that's as good as promotion gets.

Where-we-live bulls-eye resonance -- Here's the TV series that speaks to the economic worry and pain this country is feeling without being heavy-handed about it.

One of the very first exchanges in the film finds Rayna's husband (Eric Close), a businessman gone bust several times over, talking to one of their young children who wonders why mommy has to leave to go to work [at the Grand Ole Opry] just as they're going to bed.

"Why does she have to work, aren't we rich?" the child says to her father.

"We're a different kind of rich now -- it's called cash poor," he says. "And besides, don't you know it's bad manners to talk about money."

But that's all anyone in the music business of Nashville does talk about especially since Rayna isn't bringing in the kind of money she used to for her record company.

When her husband, Teddy, asks her what's wrong one night, she says, "Oh, everything. My record's a stiff. The tour's not selling, so they want me to open for Juliette Barnes."

Yes, this is the part that is absolutely going to make baby boomer viewers -- the ones who watch HBO, Showtime and AMC for "quality" drama -- fall in love with this show. Rayna is being replaced by a "new business model," and in this case, she appears to be a nasty little, emotionally messed-up, talent-less monster.

When Rayna goes to meet the new owner of the record company in hopes of talking him out of his idea of putting her on tour with Juliette Barnes, the aging singer opens by trying to remind him of all her awards and past earning power. But he politely cuts her off with, "We all wish this album was doing better."

Then, he gets to what he sees as the order of business, telling her, "Older business models are irrelevant... You've got to find your place in a new market."

That's a conversation lots of folks have had in one form or another as our nation and economy goes through an epic period of transformation. Boomers, even some longtime high achievers who haven't found new "business models," quickly find themselves redundant -- a nice way of saying professionally cooked, or, at least, greatly diminished in status and dollars.

After decades of stardom, Rayna doesn't handle those words from the new boss well at all. She has a great Callie Khouri exit line, but she looks headed for trouble in her unwillingness to re-invent her act.

Whither goes Rayna? And whither comest Juliette, who sure looks like she's moving in on Rayna's guitarist/bandleader/longtime unrequited lover (Charles Esten) in addition to her country music throne?

The one complaint I have about the series is that I wish it was on HBO, Showtime or AMC, and Khouri didn't have to go quite so melodramatic and borderline over-the-top with characters like Rayna's rich dad (Powers Boothe) in search of a mass-mass audience.

But I'll put up with a little J.R. Ewing silliness of Boothe's performance for the richly textured, instantly engaging work done by Britton. ABC is lucky to have her after so enthusiastically embracing the business model of cheap reality TV instead of the more expensive practice of trying to fill the 10 o'clock hour with quality drama.